The historic Jama Masjid of Delhi, one of the largest mosques in India, remained closed ahead of the start of the holy month of Ramadan. (Pallava Bagla/Corbis/Getty Images)
NEW DELHI — On a bright morning earlier this month, a former army officer was riding his motorcycle down a rural road south of India’s capital when he reached an improvised barricade. He had no idea the villagers were looking for a scapegoat.
He slowed his bike to a stop. The men at the barricade quickly identified him as a Muslim from the neighboring area in the state of Haryana. “These people are spreading the coronavirus,” said one of the villagers, according to a police complaint filed by the man’s family. “Grab him.”
Sahimuddin, 49, who goes by only one name, felt a rope thrown around his neck. The attackers tightened the noose until he fell unconscious, the complaint said. He was later rushed to a hospital coughing blood, where doctors performed emergency surgery on his ruptured vocal cords and damaged trachea. He will require two more operations in the weeks ahead.
The assault reflected one of the oldest — and ugliest — human impulses: the desire to blame calamity on those who are different. In India, the search for scapegoats during the coronavirus pandemic has focused squarely on the country’s sizable Muslim minority, a community of 200 million that felt under threat even before the advent of covid-19.
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News channels and some ruling-party officials rushed to blame Muslims for the rising number of coronavirus cases in the country after an Islamic missionary group in New Delhi emerged as a super-spreader. In recent weeks, Muslims have been assaulted, denied medical care and subjected to boycotts — all in the name of fear of the virus.
While India stands out for the wave of vitriol directed toward its Muslim community, it is by no means alone. In the United States and Europe, there have been reports of discrimination and attacks on people of Asian descent. In China, Africans have been evicted and refused entry to restaurants amid fears that foreigners could spark a new round of infections. In Pakistan, activists say that the Hazara ethnic minority has been unfairly blamed as the source of the virus.
The United States has expressed concern about the scapegoating of religious minorities during the pandemic. Sam Brownback, who holds the title of U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, recently urged governments to “step up and pushback on these false narratives.” He declined to comment on India’s treatment of Muslims.
This type of crisis can bring out new expressions of old prejudices, said Charlie Campbell, the author of a history of scapegoating. For governments, meanwhile, channeling public anger toward internal or external enemies is a way of diverting attention from their own failures, he said.
“It’s just a lot easier if you can whip up hatred against someone else,” Campbell said. “It’s the idea of the bad apple rather than the rotten barrel.”
Scapegoating during pandemics has a long history. Jews were blamed for the outbreak of the Black Death in medieval Europe. Irish immigrants were accused of spreading cholera in the 19th-century United States. Haitians were stigmatized during the AIDS epidemic.
Yet such reactions are not inevitable, historians say. Responses to pandemics have included scapegoating, racism, xenophobia, the spreading of false rumors and price gouging, said Nukhet Varlik, a historian at the University of South Carolina who studies diseases, in a recent interview. But they also have included “empathy, altruism, caring and helping others.”
In India, a Hindu-majority nation of more than 1.3 billion people, the malice directed toward Muslims during the pandemic has intensified an already difficult situation.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued an agenda of Hindu primacy, moving India away from its secular founding ideals and raising fears that Muslims will be treated as second-class citizens. In February, the Indian capital witnessed its worst violence between Hindus and Muslims in decades. More than 50 people, most of them Muslims, were killed.
In late March, the Delhi headquarters of an international Islamic missionary group called Tablighi Jamaat emerged as a major source of coronavirus infections. More than 4,000 confirmed cases have been linked to people who passed through the center. Its leader is facing criminal charges including negligently spreading disease, which he denies.
Television anchors accused the group of engaging in a deliberate conspiracy to spread the virus, without citing any evidence. “We have identified the corona villains,” thundered Arnab Goswami of Republic TV.
Meanwhile, slurs against Muslims spread on social media. Videos shared on Facebook and Twitter have falsely accused Muslims of spreading the virus by purposely spitting, licking or sneezing on food. The hashtag #CoronaJihad circulated widely. A member of Parliament from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party took up the phrase, while another party official likened members of the Tablighi Jamaat to “human bombs.”
On Sunday, nearly a month after the Tablighi Jamaat cluster emerged, Modi issued an appeal for unity. “Covid-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders,” he wrote on Twitter. “. . . We are in this together.” India has reported about 20,000 confirmed cases and more than 600 deaths from coronavirus.
Zafarul-Islam Khan, the chairman of the Delhi Minorities Commission, said the Tablighi Jamaat leadership failed to anticipate the impending danger, but noted that many other religious and political groups continued their activities in the same period. The subsequent vilification of Muslims — propelled by media coverage and largely unchecked by the government — could have far-reaching consequences, Khan said. He fears it will “take much longer” for discriminatory behavior to subside.
In the eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur, a pregnant Muslim woman alleged that when she went to a hospital last week for help with sudden bleeding, she was accused of spreading the virus and told to clean up her own blood, according to a letter she sent to the top politician in the state. Later that day, her baby was found stillborn. An investigation is underway and any required action will be taken against the hospital, said Anoop Birtharay, the city’s superintendent of police.
Rukhsar Parveen, 15, a Muslim student living in a slum in Bhatpara in the state of West Bengal, said her family used to get drinking water from a community tap. But now her Hindu neighbors have prevented them from accessing it, saying they will spread infection. So Muslim families are drinking water from the pipes that supply non-potable water for bathing instead. A local activist confirmed Parveen’s account.
“We feel bad,” Parveen said. “Why are they behaving like this with us?”
Fake news has also circulated among Muslims, including WhatsApp messages alleging that the authorities are taking Muslims away and forcibly injecting them with the coronavirus. Such falsehoods helped spur an assault on health workers in the central Indian city of Indore when they visited a Muslim neighborhood, said Suraj Verma, a senior police official in the city.
In some cases, the scapegoating has spilled over into violence. Zareen Taj, a 39-year-old Muslim activist, was distributing food to the poor earlier this month in the southern city of Bangalore. A group of men arrived and began shouting at her and her team, Taj said, accusing them of spitting on the food and spreading the coronavirus. When she returned two days later, she said, members of the same group battered her team members with sticks on the hands and head, drawing blood.
Bheemashankar S. Guled, a deputy police commissioner, said that three people were arrested, and they denied their actions were religiously motivated.
The incident has left Taj brokenhearted. “We can save our country from this disease if we join hands,” she said. “This is the time for solidarity, not for division and hatred.”
Sahimuddin, the retired army officer attacked in Haryana, was discharged from the hospital and is recovering at home. For now, he has lost his ability to speak. Police are investigating the assault.
His family is still reeling. Sahimuddin’s son Akib Hussain, a software engineer, said the attack was especially bitter given his father’s long career in the Indian army.